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Which teams stand in No. 13 Utah’s way in its quest to defend Pac-12 title?

With conference play beginning in earnest this week, the league has four ranked teams, including No. 7 USC, No. 15 Oregon and No. 18 Washington.

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Utah QB Cameron Rising runs against USC during game on Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. USC plays at Utah on Oct. 15, 2022.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising runs against USC during game on Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. The two teams, which are the frontrunners to win the Pac-12 this season, play at Utah on Oct. 15, 2022.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

A few weeks into the 2022 season, the time has officially come for No. 13 Utah to begin its quest to repeat as Pac-12 champions.

The Utes (2-1), who captured their first Pac-12 title last year, visit Arizona State Saturday (8:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) in their conference opener. It’s the first of nine consecutive league games. 

“That’s why we’re here,” said coach Kyle Whittingham, “to try to win the Pac-12.”

The race will be a little different this season. 

For starters, there’s a change in the championship game format. The league announced last summer that when it comes to crowning a champion, divisions no longer matter. The Pac-12 championship game will feature the two teams with the highest conference winning percentage instead of two division winners. 

“Our goal is to place our two best teams in our Pac-12 football championship game, which we believe will provide our conference with the best opportunity to optimize CFP invitations and ultimately win national championships,” said Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff.

The Pac-12 championship game will be held Dec. 2 in Las Vegas.

And there are a lot of new coaches and new players in the league that have made an immediate impact. 

Certainly, Utah has a target on its back entering conference play. It’s a role the Utes say they are embracing, explaining that they are “attacking” the title, not “defending” it.

“We’re definitely trail blazers this season in that we’re predicted to win and we are the defending champs. This is something that hasn’t happened in this program’s history,” said wide receiver Devaughn Vele. “We’ve had years when we’ve been favored to be the championship team but we had never won it before. We had never had that target on our back.

“We were always that respected team but we weren’t feared. That’s one thing we talked about during the offseason, that we need to be a team that’s feared, not just respected,” Vele added. “Everybody respects the Utah football program. They’ve seen it on the big stages. They’ve seen it in the Rose Bowl, winning the Pac-12 championship and all the adversity we went through. People respect us now. But now we want to take it to the next level, where people fear us.”

The 2022 race for the Pac-12 crown is expected to be highly competitive. 

Less than a month into the season, four Pac-12 teams are ranked — No. 7 USC, No. 13 Utah, No. 15 Oregon and No. 18 Washington. 

The Huskies defeated then-No. 11 Michigan State 39-28 and the Ducks knocked off then-No. 12 BYU.

“That was a big win for them against a highly ranked Michigan State team,” Whittingham said about Washington. “It was a good weekend overall for the Pac-12. Not everybody fared well but in general for the conference it was a positive weekend.”

Here’s a look at each Pac-12 team.

No. 7 USC

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USC quarterback Caleb Williams passes during game against Fresno State Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

The Trojans (3-0), under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, have been explosive offensively, with quarterback Caleb Williams; running backs Austin Jones and Travis Dye; and wide receiver Jordan Addison.

USC has scored at least 40 points in each of their first three games. Riley has a 21-1 record as a head coach in games played in September.

The Trojans have a tough test at Oregon State on Saturday. They visit Utah on Oct. 15.


No. 13 Utah

The Utes have outscored their opponents 108-14 in their last two games and have allowed only 258 yards in their last two contests. 

Utah opens conference play Saturday at ASU, which just fired coach Herm Edwards.


No. 15 Oregon

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Oregon quarterback Bo Nix takes the snap against BYU Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. After rough start to the season, Nix and the Ducks seem to have found their groove.

Andy Nelson, Associated Press

The Ducks crushed BYU 41-20 at home last Saturday, a couple of weeks after being trounced by No. 1 Georgia. 

First-year coach Dan Lanning seems to be establishing physicality and a strong rushing attack. Quarterback Bo Nix enjoyed a career day against the Cougars with three rushing touchdowns. 

Oregon hosts Utah on Nov. 19. 


No. 18 Washington

The Huskies are off to a 3-0 start under first-year coach Kalen DeBoer and they jumped into the polls after beating Michigan State.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns against the Spartans.

Washington opens Pac-12 play Saturday at home against Stanford. Utah does not play the Huskies this season. 


UCLA

The Bruins (3-0) survived a big scare at home against South Alabama, pulling out a 32-31 victory. 

UCLA is undefeated under coach Chip Kelly for the first time. The last time that happened was 2015. 

With quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, running back Zach Charbonnet and Jake Bobo, the Bruins have big-time playmakers.

UCLA visits Colorado Saturday. The Utes visit the Bruins on Oct. 8.


Washington State

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Washington State coach Jake Dickert, center, and his team sing the school fight song after defeating Colorado State, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Pullman, Wash. The first-year Cougars coach has WSU off to an impressive 3-0 start.

Young Kwak, Associated Press

The Cougars, who whipped Colorado State 38-7 last week, are enjoying their first 3-0 start since 2019 and Jake Dickert is the first WSU coach to start his first full season 3-0 since Mike Price in 1989. 

Washington State, which upset Wisconsin on the road on Sept. 10, has held each of its first three opponents to 17 points or less while quarterback Cam Ward has passed for more than 200 yards in each of his first three games.

The Cougars host Oregon this Saturday and entertain Utah on Oct. 27. 


Oregon State

Coming off a 68-28 demolition of Montana State, the Beavers are 3-0 for the first time since 2014. It’s the most points OSU has scored in a game since 2012. 

Oregon State has had two straight games without a turnover. 

The Beavers host USC Saturday and visit Utah on Oct. 1.


Arizona

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Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura warms up before game against North Dakota State on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Tucson, Ariz. The Wildcats QB has come up big for 2-1 Arizona.

Chris Coduto, Associated Press

The Wildcats (2-1) have already eclipsed their entire win total from the 2021 season, when they posted a 1-11 mark. In fact, Arizona has more wins in the first three games than it did in the previous two seasons combined.

Last week, the Wildcats edged North Dakota State 31-28. 

Quarterback Jayden de Laura has made a big impact for Arizona. He passed for 229 yards and a touchdown and ran for 50 yards and a TD last week. 

The Wildcats visit California Saturday and they visit Utah on Nov. 5.


California

The Bears (2-1) had chances to beat Notre Dame on the road before falling 24-17. It marked Cal’s 14th straight loss when being held to less than 20 points per game. 

The Bears host Arizona Saturday. 


Stanford

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Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee signals to a teammate before snapping the ball during game against Southern California in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Associated Press

The Cardinal (1-1) is coming off a bye week. Stanford lost its Pac-12 opener at home against USC, 41-28. 

Quarterback Tanner McKee has completed 42 of 62 passes for 528 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions this season. 

Stanford visits Washington Saturday. The Cardinal travel to Utah on Nov. 12.


Arizona State

The Sun Devils (1-2) parted ways with Edwards after a humbling 30-21 loss at home against Eastern Michigan, and allowed more than 300 rushing yards. 

ASU has seen a dropoff in talent in recent years. It lost quarterback Jayden Daniels, and others, to the transfer portal during the offseason. 

Arizona State named Shaun Aguano the program’s interim head football coach for the remainder of the 2022 season. The Sun Devils host Utah Saturday. 


Colorado

There’s plenty of speculation about when the Buffaloes make a change with their head coach, Karl Dorrell. 

Things have gotten so bad in Boulder that athletic director Rick George had to release a statement Sunday night that reaffirms his commitment to Dorrell. 

Colorado is 0-3 to start the season and it has lost all three games by more than 25 points, including a 49-7 loss at Minnesota last Saturday.

The Buffaloes open Pac-12 play Saturday at home against UCLA and they host Utah on Nov. 26. 


Utes on the air

No. 13 Utah (2-1) at Arizona State (1-2) 

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MDT

Sun Devil Stadium 

TV: ESPN

Radio: ESPN 700